New CDU leader starts work on long to-do list – without pay

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer must grasp the nettle of migration while building power

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is not interested in a cabinet position and wants to focus instead on building her power base in the party. Photograph: Focke Strangmann/EPA

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is not interested in a cabinet position and wants to focus instead on building her power base in the party. Photograph: Focke Strangmann/EPA

 

Germany’s new centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader got down to work in Berlin on Monday, three days after she was elected, with a to-do list already longer than her name.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has to unite her ruling party, deal with her leadership rival, revive a struggling coalition and establish her authority alongside Angela Merkel.

And all of this while effectively working for free.

Leaders of German political parties usually work pro bono, cross-financing their party job by their salary as an MP, minister or chancellor. But the 56-year-old Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer – known to all as AKK – gave up her €9,800-a-month state parliamentary salary in Saarland to move to Berlin last February as CDU secretary general. Without a Bundestag mandate, she has no active income.

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” she admitted at the weekend.

As her party looks for a way to pay her, AKK has worked quickly to appoint a secretary general from the CDU’s conservative camp.

Paul Ziemiak is the outspoken head of the party’s youth wing. The 33-year-old, untested in federal politics, is now responsible for taking on political rivals and preparing the party for May’s European Parliament election.

He will also be a key figure in making the grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) work. Last October he claimed it was “drifting from one crisis sitting to another, preoccupied only with itself”.

Historic low

The leadership race has given the CDU a boost in the polls; it stands at 32 per cent but the SPD continues to slide and is now on a historic low of just 14 per cent.

Serious stand-offs are looming: AKK is mulling tighter migration policies to win back CDU voters lost to the far right and opposes SPD demands to lift a ban on advertising abortion services. “It’ll be a difficult job,” said Mr Ziemiak, with an eye on his divided party and its struggling coalition.

The main cause of internal party tensions is Friday’s leadership race runner-up, Friedrich Merz. A former CDU leading light edged out by Dr Merkel in 2002, he entered the leadership race – and was feted by by conservatives and the party’s influential business wing – as the best man to shake up their party. He attracted 48 per cent support among delegates on Friday, while among party members he is even more popular, with 60 per cent support.

Those supporters want to see him brought into government but he has so far declined to accept or decline Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer’s offer to join forces. That could change, with speculation growing of a cabinet reshuffle, with a Bavarian ally of Dr Merkel leaving cabinet as well as the SPD justice minister.

Power and reform

For her part, Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer is not interested in a cabinet position and wants to focus instead on building her power base in the party, reforming structures and procedures in its Berlin headquarters, overhauling policies and boosting grass-roots involvement.

Mr Merz, a millionaire corporate lawyer, would be an ideal economics minister, his supporters suggest. But it remains to be seen if Dr Merkel, hoping to stay on as head of government until 2021, would welcome him into her cabinet a rival she shafted 16 years ago.

Any refusal by her, a diminished political figure since last week, to accommodate Mr Merz could, in turn, prompt Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer to seek a way to take the chancellery for herself.

Swapping out coalition partners is unlikely while Germany’s postwar constitution – drafted with Weimar-era chaos a recent memory – leaves little wriggle room for snap elections. But pressure for more radical change could yet come, particularly after a poor CDU showing in next May’s European elections.